The Book of Ruth and the Bechdel Test

In church last Sunday, I didn’t know what was going to happen when during the reading part, two women stepped up to the altar and another to the pulpit. They began to read parts from the first chapter of the book of Ruth, one as the narrator, one as Ruth, and one as Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi.


When Ruth said to Naomi, who has just been cranky and bitter with Ruth in her grief, “No, wherever you will go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be MY people, and your God will be MY God,” I began to cry.

I didn’t exactly know why until this week I was reading further in the book of Ruth for my sermon this weekend, and remembered the Bechdel test. This test is, briefly, passed, if two named characters who are women speak for any length of time about something other than a man.

It is shocking how many TV shows and movies fail this test, and it’s even more shocking when you read the reasons given for this…that the “audience” (you know, the dummies like me who consume the media) won’t pay for it if women are talking to each other about….well, “whatever it is that woman talk about.”

In recent years this has been proven to be false, because of movies like Frozen, The Heat, Brave, and Pitch Perfect, which grossed a stunning amount of money as well as the others that passed the test. Nevertheless, when you start looking at it, it’s exceedingly rare both in pop culture and in the Bible to see a story that passes the test.

And I think the reason I started crying in church is the same reason that I started crying in the movie “Brave,” that it’s so rare to see someone like me depicted on screen or in a story having a complex life, conversations, relationships, friendships, with women. You know, like we’re PEOPLE. And when I started thinking about it, my favorite stories both in the culture and in the Bible are the rare ones where we get a glimpse into womens’ lives, not just as they relate to men, but as they relate to each other and as they are portrayed as full human beings. Like I said, it’s shockingly rare.

The only other stories that questionably pass the Bechdel test in the Bible are:

1. The apocryphal book of Tobit, in which a woman is reproached by her father’s maids (who are unnamed)
2. The gospel of Mark, when the women murmur to each other, “Who will roll the stone away?”
3. The gospel of Luke, when Mary and Elizabeth see each other and talk about their pregnancies (this one is arguable, because they are talking about boy babies, but I’m going to give it a pass because it’s such a long conversation about more than romantic partners)

That’s it.

We KNOW those stories are there. We know that, behind all those lists of kings and thrones and wars and power-grabbing, there were women, having full, complex lives. But we don’t hear the stories.

All the better to rejoice when we do, whether it be in Orange is the New Black (not for the faint of heart) or the Book of Ruth (ALSO, not for the faint of heart! Hello, Chapter 3!).

We can be bitter like Naomi, or we can go ahead and tell the stories that we can, and tell them wherever we can, and tell our own, too. And give our time (and our money) to those filmmakers who are brave enough to tell the truth about womens’ lives.

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2 thoughts on “The Book of Ruth and the Bechdel Test

  1. Hi, Beth. I’m in your debt. I consider myself reasonably well informed about gender issues, but never heard of the Bechdel test. Thanks for opening my eyes and brain. Nice post. Peace, John

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